Stravinsky: The Rake's Progress

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 26 January 2010 4.5 stars

The Rake's ProgressAlthough I am familiar with Ninette de Valois' beautiful ballet – her 'Homage to Hogarth' – of the same title, I had not heard The Rake's Progress until the Royal Opera House's current revival (of their July 2008 production). I cannot make comparisons with past stagings of this opera or with previous singers and conductors, but I am certain that my enthusiasm for this revival is justified.

Stravinsky's setting of the poetic libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, that is, their combined rendering of Hogarth's set of eight paintings, is a rare feast for mind and soul. When you add an imaginative staging as well as a brilliant cast of singers and an excellent conductor, you get a rare operatic event. As my companion to the first night of this revival remarked, this was a once in a life-time experience.

Taking the lead from librettists Auden and Kallman, director Robert Lepage updates Hogarth's pictorial narrative to the 1950s and moves the action to America. We see the drama in the place and time of its creation, where composer and librettists wrote the opera and where they introduced some changes to the original story. For instance, in Hogarth, Anne Trulove is already pregnant when Tom leaves her, and Tom marries an old woman for her money. In the opera Anne is the virginal American sweetheart from next door and Tom marries the stage sensation Baba the Turk apparently to show his freedom, but possibly also for the trappings of stardom.

In Lepage's witty update the world of television and Hollywood represent those sentiments of betrayal, greed and debauchery which were shown in Hogarth's painting two centuries earlier. The video film images, including Anne's car journey, are visually pleasing and also appropriate because of the pictorial source of the libretto. The Hollywood idea allows some stage wizardry – such as Tom and Mother Goose disappearing during their sexual encounter in the brothel through an invisible hole on the stage scene, and later an inflatable camper van appearing evidently through the same hole – spectacular lighting display, and welcome humour in the far-from-jolly storyline. The swimming pool scene is particularly funny, but light relief in some form is constant.

The staging can be confusing in a few minor details. I am not certain whether the backdrop to the young lovers' pastoral scene in the opening tableau includes an oil rigging machine or a film camera. I also wondered why Tom puts on a Hogarthian costume when we first see him in his house. Is this just a nod towards Hogarth or a costume for the film 'Tom Rakewell and Baba the Turk' which, as it transpires later, the devil Nick Shadow is producing?

As he was tackling an eighteenth-century topic, Stravinsky chose to use the pattern of the eighteenth-century opera form and orchestration. However, he also alludes to earlier periods. The nineteen-bar long Prelude to the opera recalls the opening of Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1610. Other musical references to Orfeo can be heard in the Bedlam scene when Tom and Anne sing 'Rejoice, beloved, in these fields of Elysium' and later Tom sings 'Orpheus, strike from the lyre a swan-like music'. Notwithstanding the references to earlier musical styles, this is twentieth-century music at its best. Indeed, the solo string quartet depicts the cemetery in the churchyard with almost atonal harmonies (in the Prelude to the second scene of Act Three).

The Rake's ProgressConductor Ingo Metzmacher does full justice to the score. With his excellent tempi he propels forward the action; lyricism and tight rhythm are of equal importance. Metzmacher controls and supports his singers and orchestra admirably.In his score Stravinsky specifies that ‘All markings of dynamics are based on the conception of a performance  under ideal conditions...For these reasons it is left to the Conductor to determine the treatment best suited in the particular circumstances..’. Metzmacher accommodates the large stage and theatre, thus all vocal and orchestral parts of this Mozartian scoring are transparent. Stravinsky updates the eighteenth-century style and Metzmacher takes note: for instance, the Handelian Sarabande in the second scene of Act Two sounds menacingly modern.

Toby Spence's portrayal of Tom Rakewell is a virtuoso performance of the highest possible standard. His crystal clear diction, variety of tone colour, knowledge of musical styles and sheer stamina are astonishing. When the score requires it, he sings with intimacy; elsewhere with tireless energy. Spence's rendering of a passage referring to Monteverdi's Orfeo – just before Tom dies – was of unforgettable beauty.

Kyle Ketelsen is brilliant as the devil Nick Shadow. Like Toby Spence, he delivers vocally, dramatically and musically; his portrayal is menacing and fully credible as the devil. Rosemary Joshua is well suited to the role of the sensitive and faithful Anne; she gives a technically assured and moving account of the abandoned but selfless friend. It is a credit to Joshua’s stage craft, that – even though she is placed far back on the stage – her prayer for Tom (in the third scene, Act Two) commands full attention. Patricia Bardon is most convincing as the powerful yet deeply vulnerable Baba the Turk. Her image of the Hollywood film star is rightly tragicomic. Veteran Graham Clark is highly spirited as the auctioneer Sellem. He arrives with a masterly cartwheel and delivers vocally and dramatically with gusto. However, I am not sure whether the roles of Trulove and Mother Goose were ideally cast. Although both singers – Jeremy White and Frances McCafferty – delivered solid performances, to my mind they did not provide enough contrast to the other characters in the plot.    

Michael Keegan-Dolan's choreography grows organically from Stravinsky's music and it supports Lepage's directorial concept well. Full praise to orchestra, chorus and dancers; and a note of thanks for the lovely trumpet solo during what is shown here as Anne's journey to London. (This section is the introduction to the second scene of the second act.)  

This Rake's Progress is a rare experience in the opera house. Don't miss it.

By Agnes Kory



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